DI Story of the Year: Men's basketball resurgence

BY BEN SCHUFF | MAY 11, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Iowa men's basketball team posted an overall winning record in 2011-12 for the first time in five years.

And for the first time in what seemed like forever, Hawkeye basketball became exciting to watch again.

"It was a matter of us believing we could do it," guard Devyn Marble said. "Coming into the year, we knew we'd be better than last year — but we didn't know how good."

The Hawkeyes' most significant achievement in year two of the Fran McCaffery era came in the form of the program's first postseason victory in almost a decade. Iowa defeated Dayton, 84-75, in the first round of the NIT before a raucous home crowd on March 13.

The 2011-12 season was a season of firsts in many ways. Iowa's first-round defeat of Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament marked the first time in six years the Hawkeyes lived to see round two.

This past season also marked the first time in four years Iowa didn't finish second-to-last in the Big Ten. The team's 8-10 conference record tied for fifth-best, and it doubled its league victory total from a year ago.

The Hawkeyes' 18 victories were the program's most since the 2005-06 season. Matt Gatens was only a sophomore at Iowa City High that year and hadn't yet started a career that would land him sixth on the school's all-time scoring list.

When asked if he thought Iowa had a realistic shot at post-season play during his first two years with the Hawkeyes, Gatens said, "It didn't look good."

"But with Coach McCaffery coming in and really shocking the program, getting the fans back involved, that really helped," he told The Daily Iowan. "Things are on the rise."

Some of the largest crowds Carver-Hawkeye Arena has hosted in recent seasons saw the team upset the likes of No. 13 Michigan, No. 20 Indiana, and No. 15 Wisconsin.

Iowa's home wins over the Hoosiers and Badgers in February featured an unconscious scoring stretch from Gatens, who scored 30 and 33 points in those two games, respectively. The sharp-shooting Iowa City native connected on 7-of-10 3-point attempts in each victory and ended up making a team-record 12-consecutive treys.

But a midseason road trip demonstrated the Hawkeyes' potential. Iowa went on the road early in the Big Ten season and defeated No. 11 Wisconsin and followed that with a road win over Minnesota.

"It just showed us we can be a good team in the Big Ten, and we don't have to be at the bottom like we were the year before and the previous years," Marble said.

Gatens carried the team through large chunks of the season, but no player stepped up more for the Hawkeyes than Marble. The sophomore saw his playing time increase by nearly 10 minutes a game from his freshman year, partially because of injuries to point guard Bryce Cartwright.

Marble responded, and his 11.5 points per game was the second-best mark on the squad.

"The beauty of what happened [with Marble], I think he grew and developed as a point guard — but then we were able to move him back over to the wing, and that gave us another weapon," McCaffery said. "We had much more versatile pieces."

Freshman Aaron White exemplified that versatility; the 6-8 freshman led the team in rebounding while often hurting opponents from the perimeter offensively.

White will be one of several underclassmen who McCaffery said will see significant playing time next season. Iowa has a highly touted recruiting class coming to Iowa City in the fall, led by center Adam Woodbury.

While Gatens won't suit up in Black and Gold again, he said next year's team and those of the foreseeable future under McCaffery are very close to being legitimate Big Ten contenders.

"We're right on that edge," he said. "We're not far off; it's just going to depend on the guys returning, having that same mentality, the coaches keep coaching the way they are, and the new guys having an impact like these freshman did.

"Good things will happen."

Follow DI men's basketball reporter Ben Schuff on Twitter.

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